Drug and Alcohol Facts Week is March 22-28. It’s important to understand the facts about these substances, particularly how they will affect different individuals. A research report that was recently published found that psychiatric drugs may affect men and women differently, which could have a significant impact on the use of these drugs for the treatment of mental illness.
Men, Women, and Mental Illness
In the US, about one in five adults live with a mental illness, ranging from mild to severe. The National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) defines two categories of mental illnesses:
- Any mental illness (AMI) is a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. In 2019, an estimated 51.5 million adults in the US were diagnosed with AMI. The prevalence of AMI is higher in women (24.5%) than in males (16.3%).
- Serious mental illness (SMI) is a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder that results in serious functional impairment. In 2019, an estimated 13.1 million adults in the US were diagnosed with an SMI. The prevalence of SMI is also higher among women (6.5%) than men (3.9%).
Drugs used to treat mental illness in both men and women can include anti-depressants, stimulants, anti-psychotics, mood stabilizers, and anti-anxiety medications.
A Protein Known as AKT
These psychiatric drugs are used to modify the activity of a protein that is known as AKT. Recent research conducted by Charles Hoeffer, an assistant professor of integrative physiology at the Institute for Behavioral Genetics at the University of Colorado, shed some light on how the drugs affect men and women based on the changes in AKT.
The protein was discovered in the 1970s and has recently been identified as a key player in promoting synaptic plasticity. This means simply that it is integral to the brain’s ability to strengthen connections between neurons in response to experience. Previous research has linked AKT gene mutations to issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, autism, and Alzheimer’s.
As Hoeffer explains, “Let’s say you see a shark and you’re scared and your brain wants to form a memory. You have to make new proteins to encode that memory.” AKT is one of the proteins that will jump-start other downstream proteins in the memory. Without this protein, an individual can’t learn new memories or get rid of old ones to make room for new, less harmful memories.
Treating Mental Illness
In their report, the researchers emphasize that psychiatric disorders such as major depressive disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia are important public health issues with large societal and economic costs. The researchers also state that genetics is known to play a significant role in the manifestation of psychiatric illnesses. Though there have been many studies that have led to the development of psychiatric drugs for treating mental illness, many patients remain untreated or the treatments are not effective for various reasons.
The researchers were concerned about the effectiveness of available therapies, including the use of psychiatric drugs and discovered that these drugs do affect men and women differently, based on how AKT responds to the treatments. While investigating the effectiveness of certain drugs on the brain, Hoeffer said, “We found the difference between males and females to be so great it became the focus of our work.”
The impact of this study is important for understanding how psychiatric drugs may affect men and women differently so professionals in addiction treatment can better target the use of certain medications. Hoeffer indicated that, particularly since women are almost four times as likely to experience mental illness in their lifetime, he hopes his work can help by disentangling the nuances between men and women, moving the dial toward more effective and safer treatments.
The researcher noted that “To help more people suffering from mental illness we need much more knowledge about the difference between male and female brains and how they could be treated differently. This study is an important step in that direction.”
Contact Recovery Without Walls for Mental Health Treatment
At Recovery Without Walls, we focus on evidence-informed research, exceptional psychotherapy, and integrative healing methods. We can help you with the treatment of depression, anxiety, phobias, self-destructive patterns, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. We also offer help with anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we encourage you to email or call us for care and answers to your questions. Our providers continue to work to help you through treatment and recovery. Contact us today to learn more about the link between mental illness and substance use disorder and to get help.